From the first theories about the afterlife conceived in Ancient History, to the obsession over death in the Middle Ages, or the controversial views of some Modern authors, the philosophy of death has taken many forms throughout our history. In this article we will be looking at some of the most interesting philosophical perspectives on death.
There are few things that we can know for sure during our journey in life and, ironically, one of these things is the fact that eventually our lives will end. While we know nothing for certain about what happens before we are born or after we die, death marks an unavoidable destination in the path of every human being, which can be a relieving certainty or a looming threat, depending on how you look at it.
It would be safe to assume that every person who has walked on this planet has had thoughts about their own mortality at one point or another, and so did the greatest minds of the human race. Many philosophers have written extensive works on the matter. Some of these perspectives are essential for understanding the intellectual development of western civilization; some can even help us better understand the zeitgeist of pivotal periods of history.
1. Socrates’ Philosophy of Death: The Immortality of the Soul
Socrates is regarded as one of the most important philosophers to have ever lived, tackling diverse areas of philosophy such as ethics and metaphysics. His contributions range from the reconciliation of divergent lines of thought, as observed during his encounter with Heraclitus and Parmenides, which was recorded by Plato on his famous work called Sophist, all the way to the very method used in a philosophical dialogue: the Socratic method.
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The philosophy of Socrates was certainly revolutionary for its time. Unfortunately, this led to the authorities of Athens condemning Socrates to a death sentence by claiming that he was guilty of “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”, both of which were considered serious crimes. Socrates accepted his sentence without complaint, to the shock of many of his followers, believing that his behavior in life was in line with a higher notion of universal moral values and justice, and that the human soul is immortal.
The immortality of the soul is a very important point of Socratic philosophy as a whole and the core aspect of his views on death itself. According to Socrates, immortality can be proved by arguments resting on the existence of the cycle of life, the principle of recollection and the divine.
In nature we can clearly observe that life emerges from death and decay – what we call the cycle of life – and so must the soul, which survives our physical death and eventually returns as a new life.
The notion of an immortal soul leads us to the principle of recollection, which consists in the fact that humans remember and know things that they have never experienced or have been taught. No one needs to be taught what the geometrical shapes are, we naturally have these concepts even without knowing the names of the shapes themselves. Because of this, Socrates believed that our souls must have learned these concepts in former lives. Additionally, we feel a connection to the divine and the gods, things that cannot be felt by any of our senses, so we must have some of that divine in our souls, and the divine is, of course, immortal.
Socrates insists that while our lives are to be cherished as gifts of the gods (meaning that suicide is wrong) death is not an evil thing that we should fear. If you live your life as a moral person your soul should be in balance, and death is simply the natural way to free your soul and guide it to the eternal truths and virtues. Death is seen by Socrates as the liberation of the soul and that is why it should be faced with serenity, as long as you know that you have lived your life in the best possible way.
The Socratic perspective on death is a beautiful way of viewing the end of our lives and serves not only as something that helps quell the fear of death but also as a motivation for living our lives as virtuous, just, and moral people.
2. The Pineal Soul of René Descartes
René Descartes is the father of Modern philosophy, marking the final years of the Medieval era and the birth of the Modern age. Descartes is an author who didn’t only change many paradigms of the philosophical tradition but of the western way of thinking as a whole, working in varied disciplines such as mathematics, physics, geometry, cosmology, and many more.
Among these paradigm-changes were his novel concepts of death and the human soul. Ever since Ancient times it was understood that body and soul consisted in two parts of the same entity, and that the soul served both as the engine for our physiological functions, animating our bodies from the inside so to speak, and as our consciousness, which is responsible for our understanding of the world and of ourselves.
Descartes questioned this notion, claiming that the body and the soul were separate entities that merely interacted with each other. The immortal soul persists as consciousness after the end of our physiological functions, because existence after death wouldn’t make sense without a mind to verify such existence.
Moving on from the concept of soul to the understanding of death, the established conception up until that point was that death consisted in the decay of the physical body and the departure of the soul. However, how can the very moment of disconnection between the body and the soul be determined? Descartes was the first author to establish the concept of brain death, arguing that the point of interaction between body and soul resided at the pineal gland, which is located in our brains.
The work of Descartes when it comes to the subject of death was extremely impactful, serving as a bridge between Medieval and Modern philosophy, and paving the way for extremely important scientific developments in the areas of anatomy and medicine.
2. Søren Kierkegaard and the Importance of Death
The concept of death is a very important part of Existentialist philosophy, and that is no exception when it comes to the father of Existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and one of the most important minds of his time, with an extensive work that centered around religion and everything related to theology, especially the ethical and psychological aspects of it.
When approaching the subject of death, Kierkegaard is very clear about his perspective, which is that one’s view of death is intrinsically linked to one’s view of life and existence as a whole. Death is an uncertain certainty, something that we all know will eventually happen to us but that can strike us at any moment of our lives.
It is that uncertain certainty of death and how we feel about it that leads us to choose the way in which we live our lives, whether to experience as much pleasure as we can, or to seek something that transcends our own mortality, or even make efforts to make the world a better place. Our paths are guided by our knowledge of the impending end of our lives, and we must make our choices before we meet that end, which we know will come but never know when.
Kierkegaard’s thoughts on death are a very realistic approach that give a lot of importance to how we as humans feel about our own mortality. He provides an interesting perspective and opens our eyes not only for the certainty of death but also the uncertainty of when it will come, meaning that whatever we want to do with our lives we must do it now, because we never know when it will be our last chance to do so.
4. Life as Dying: Arthur Schopenhauer
It can be expected that a pessimistic philosopher such as Arthur Schopenhauer would give a very thorough and interesting perspective on death. The fundamental aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is based around our will, the fact that we constantly want things and therefore are doomed – whether by the anguish of not having what we want or by the boredom of already having it. To live is to want, and to want is to suffer; following that logic, we can release ourselves from suffering only through the denial of our will.
The will is necessarily a will to live, meaning that we want things that can be experienced by us in our lives, things that are contained within what we call life, for that are the only things that we have access to. Schopenhauer claims that death is the aim and ultimate purpose of life, for only in death are we free from the constant cycle of suffering in life.
It is easy to misunderstand this as an encouragement of suicide, however, while Schopenhauer insists that death in itself is the ultimate denial of will, he also states that suicide is an act of strong affirmation of the will. As mentioned before, the will is the will to live, we can only want things that are contained in life, which means that we cannot truly want to end our lives. A person who wishes to commit suicide does not really want to end their life, what they really want is to experience things in life that they don’t have access to in that moment. The denial of the will is to overcome your desires, not to be defeated by the suffering that they bring.
By understanding death as the ultimate goal and purpose of life, one may also understand life as a process of constant dying. Humans are always moving closer and closer to that final release of the cycle of suffering and, as time passes and the present becomes the past, present desires pass away and eventually no longer exist, like small samples of death that are experienced as time goes by.
Schopenhauer’s views on death are similar to the Socratic perspective, since both of them understand death as a final release that is ultimately good, while not endorsing suicide as a way to achieve that release quicker. The philosophers do differ, however, in their perspectives about life, considering that Schopenhauer is a pessimist.
The work of Schopenhauer, while pessimistic in nature, provides us with some ironically uplifting perspectives, depending on how you look at it. His approach to ethics, for example, has a very positive tone to it, and so does his perspective on death if you think about it. It is somewhat relieving to know that our ultimate certainty in life is that the suffering will end, and that through the denial of will we can gradually move towards that release.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Free Death
Friedrich Nietzsche is well known for his subversive and controversial views in most areas of philosophy, being one of the most popular philosophers when it comes to the mass appeal. He is one of the precursors of Existentialism much like Kierkegaard, and yet follows a completely different path to that of the Danish philosopher.
The goal of Nietzsche’s work is very clearly established by the author: to challenge and expose every myth and delusion that clouds mankind’s understanding of the world and allow them to live in comfort. According to the philosopher, our purpose as humans should be to achieve a state of total freedom that allows us to define our own values, principles, and objectives in life.
Nietzsche claims that just like we must have the freedom to define our objectives we may also have the freedom to define our own death. Death should be neither impending doom nor final release, but an act of free will. A person who has achieved their freedom and thus defined their own goals must be able to claim death for themselves, not lingering in this world long after their mission here has been fulfilled, but setting death as the final dot of a magnificent story whenever they decide to finish it.
The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche when it comes to death brings up a lot of controversy, because it does encourage suicide is a certain way. However, Nietzsche never claims that we should use suicide as a way to escape life or any problems that we may be experiencing in it. Instead, he insists that we should live a fulfilling life according to our own view of the world, and that death shouldn’t be forced upon us. Nietzsche’s philosophy shows us that we have the power to conquer death and make it a part of our success in life.